New NTSB boss copes with crises in an edgier world

 - May 19, 2008, 7:46 AM

Marion Blakey took over the National Transportation Safety Board as its ninth chairman just in time to enter the maelstrom surrounding last November’s crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York. Through frequent media briefings in the days following the accident, she helped allay the fears of an American public–still jittery over air travel–that the crash was caused by another terrorist attack.

Two weeks earlier, Blakey had presided over her first NTSB public meeting, at which time the board adopted a probable cause of the 1999 crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 in Little Rock, Ark. Fatigue was listed as a contributing factor, and it remains an area of interest to the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). During National Sleep Awareness Week, she warned that operator fatigue remains a primary cause of serious transportation accidents throughout the country.

The day before this AIN interview, the busy NTSB chairman had spent most of her time riding in the jumpseat of a US Airways Airbus A319, “flying up and down the East Coast” to observe first-hand the complexity of the runway system and ATC interaction, as well as the “operational realities” for pilots in the cockpit.      

For the past eight years, Blakey has been the principal of Blakey & Associates, a Washington public-affairs consulting firm focusing on transportation issues and traffic safety. Before that, she served in five government departments and agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the White House, as well as the Department of Transportation.

Blakey received her bachelor’s degree with honors in international studies from Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia. She also attended Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies for graduate work in Middle East Affairs. Her current term as chairman ends September 23 next year, although her term as a member of the Safety Board does not end until Dec. 31, 2005.

Do you have any specific agenda to address transportation fatigue?

It’s a critical area that affects all modes of transportation, and it has probably been one of the thorniest problems as you look across those modes. It’s one of the hardest to come to a new paradigm and reach real consensus in terms of the best ways to approach it, from both a regulatory standpoint and a practical day-to-day operational standpoint.

The encouraging news is that we know a lot more than we used to about the actual science of sleep. There is a great deal that can be accomplished in terms of training and education, both vis-a-vis management and vis-a-vis the individual operators.

That said, one of the toughest parts is looking at the hours of service–flight time, duty time–and trying to figure out from a regulatory standpoint how you incorporate really good science, as well as the variables [of individual sleep requirements] that go with it. I don’t know specifically what we will do yet, but I consider it to be a very high priority.

It may be that the time has come for us to focus on fatigue more on a modal basis, more on a specific industry basis, looking at how this broad information relates to the specific circumstances that a captain and first officer face on a long-haul flight.

After the crash in Little Rock, the Board called for a government/industry group to examine thunderstorm penetration and perhaps come up with some guidelines. What has been done since the hearing?

The FAA has responded in a timely fashion to all of the recommendations, including that one. The agency says it has several working committees that it believes can address this issue. Therefore the FAA doesn’t see the need for a specifically focused new initiative.

I’m not sure I agree with that reasoning. When you look back on the history of some of these specific problems, you see you can really make terrific progress if you focus in a laser-like way on a specific item. The broader committee structures often have a number of items on their agendas. You kind of nudge things along on the frontline, but if you’ve got too many different things all going it can be time consuming, and sometimes you miss the boat on the specific procedures.

I’m a big believer that sometimes it is the simplest possible solution that is the best, but you have to have the political will to put it in place. In an area such as penetration of thunderstorms, we know for a fact that there is a real issue there. I think it’s clear that pilots are routinely penetrating thunderstorms of varying degrees of severity, in fact quite severe storms.

This is an ongoing issue, and the existing committees of the FAA are not really having any effect in shifting that behavior, or giving pilots a better set of decision tools to work with when faced with those options.

We did focus on wind shear in a laser-like way, and we dramatically reduced the number of wind shear accidents and incidents. There were eight of them in only a few years in the 1980s and then all of a sudden in the next decade there was only one. That’s the kind of difference I believe we can make in severe thunderstorms, too.

And I’d like to see us do it. So I think we will continue the discussion with the FAA on this and see if we can put together a joint industry effort. The FAA has to take the lead on this and put it together. If not, perhaps we need to do more, and maybe we will.
A number of business aircraft are manufactured with composites, which have been under NTSB scrutiny after the vertical tail of AA587 was found to have snapped off. What has the Board learned about these materials?

I think the business aircraft community has been among the earliest–beyond the military–to embrace the use of composites, and real advances have been made. It is therefore not only important to make sure that we are aware of the uses of composite material but also to make sure that we are aware of any advances and any safety issues that have come to the forefront in this field.

As aviation technology moves forward, there is every indication that composites are going to form a greater and greater part of the overall composition of an aircraft. At the same time, their strengths–literally as well as figuratively–and weaknesses are something that we need to take into greater account as we are looking at aviation safety, and particularly in terms of the investigation into the AA587 accident.

We have sent the A300’s entire vertical stabilizer down to NASA’s research facility in Langley, Va. The facility is best able, we believe, to do the non-destructive and more invasive testing that is important in learning about the effects of stress, aging and environmental issues on composite structures.

We have already put the rudder and vertical stabilizer through a series of tests down there, and we have now begun taking small samples out of the accident fin, to see what we can about any fractures or anomalies.

It is a complicated, ongoing process that is taking a lot of time. We’ve done a lot of work with ultrasound; we do a lot of work with other kinds of testing. We’re months away from completing that.

We want to get it right, and it is a field that has not had much examination. Everybody in aviation has worked with metals for many decades. And yet the issues that composites pose for us really are newer questions. There’s a dramatic difference between the issues for military aircraft–limited, albeit often high-stress use–and the workhorses of the industry that are out there year after year in a variety of circumstances.

Composite construction is only one issue in the accident, and whether it is a contributing factor in this accident, we genuinely don’t know.

As a result of the Flight 587 accident, the Safety Board urged that changes be made in the way pilots of transport-category aircraft are trained in rudder use. What prompted those recommendations?

Pilots certainly need to know that the rudder is there, and is important whenever they have significant wind activity during takeoff and landing, or whenever they lose power on an engine.

But significant rudder input can have a very different effect at higher speeds and altitudes. Reverse rudder action, where you have hard use of the rudder right, hard left, hard right, puts stresses on the aircraft that it was never certified to take.

Apparently that is not something the pilot community was well aware of. The circumstances in which that might come up are very rare, but the power of the rudder was not generally appreciated by pilots across the airlines and across both Boeing and Airbus aircraft.

But we believed it was important that they know that, because it has come up as an issue. Again, we do not know whether or not it really was a contributing factor, nor do we know how that rudder activity was driven. Was it pilot driven, was it a mechanical malfunction, was it an electronic issue? We don’t know yet.

The key point is that significant rudder action–particularly reverse rudder action and in the sideslip phenomena that we saw in this accident–can put stresses that go beyond the ultimate limit on the aircraft. And that’s the message we really wanted to get out.

There’s also the concern about the possibility of a pilot’s using the flight controls to immobilize a terrorist in the cabin. This could cause even greater problems if the pilot is not aware of the aircraft’s structural limitations.

Other than what we’ve discussed, what would you like to see the Board address during your tenure?

I am very interested in cockpit voice and flight data recorders. Some of the issues here are a matter of pretty simple, straightforward and inexpensive technology. I think better recording could significantly advance what we know.

Two-hour voice recorders, rather than the half-hour we have right now, could have made a significant difference on a number of accidents that we looked back on. The second thing would be more redundancy, so we could perhaps recover data where we previously have not been able to.

And of course, September 11 has some great examples of that. We lost most of the recording capability from the Pentagon crash, and of course we’ve not recovered anything from the two aircraft that crashed in New York. Could it have helped to have eight black boxes instead of four? I think so.

Finally, in terms of redundancy, the separate power sources for the flight data recorder could save information that you might otherwise lose. It would have been tremendously helpful to us in a variety of crashes, including AA587.